Dec 04, 2023 Last Updated 7:41 AM, Dec 4, 2023

The student movement

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Students are few in number but loom large on the political stage. The PRD affair demonstrated this once more. In this reflective essay, ARIEL HERYANTO asks why this should be so.

Ariel Heryanto

The 'student movement' still figures as a concept regularly used in analyses of social change in Indonesia. Whether or not it really is an important and actual political force in an empirical sense, however, still remains to be investigated. If it really is so, what form does this force actually take? On the other hand, if the student movement is really no more than a powerful illusion, other questions need to be raised: what does this illusion consist of, and where does it come from? Why does it have the power that it does? Can the illusion itself become a political force for social change? How does the strength of the illusion grow?

In what follows, I argue that the student movement really is a political force in Indonesian society, but that it must be understood both as subject and object in an intellectual discourse that circulates among the urban middle class. I do not believe it is the empirical, objective, positivist reality that many hold it to be. At the same time, however, I do not regard it merely as an illusion, though it has some similarities with fiction.

What is it?

The power of the student movement is often subject either to exaggeration or dismissal. Its exaggeration, on the one hand, is the result of an overly optimistic view of the radicalism of the student activists, their moral purity and idealism, their willingness to take risks, their intellectual sharpness and courage. On the other hand, those who tend to dismiss the significance of the student movement point to its fragmentation and inconsistencies, its limited backing and access to other resources, and most importantly, its isolation as a tiny elite minority in Indonesian society.

Although both of these views contain some truth, there are a number of other considerations to be borne in mind if we are to understand what and who the student movement really represents in the broader picture of social change. For a start we need to understand the significance of the place accorded to the student movement in the history of social change in Indonesia. The contribution made by students and intellectuals to the birth of the Indonesian nation and its subsequent struggle for recognition is revered across the political spectrum, by groups which in other ways are mutually opposed. It is a central feature of both New Order propaganda and the Buru novels of Pramudya Ananta Tur banned by the regime. In Tur's tetralogy, official history is overturned, but its central figure remains the native product of a modern schooling system.

Narratives of the present

The point here is not whether the novels and the official history are in need of 'correction', but whether an historical narrative, however it is written, can ever re-present the full complexity and confusion of a silent past, in a full, authoritative and cohesive way. Obviously, it cannot. One interesting aspect of all historical narratives is the fact that the heroes in the story are always of the same social background as their writers and readers. They are men, middle class and graduates of modern schools. The suspicion this observation might arouse in our minds then lead us to a different observation: that stories of the past are actually narratives of the present, that is, of the interests of the writer and readers themselves. The reality of the past is formed by the traditions of narrative, of language, of discourse that are dominant in present day society. It is not the product of an individual author, with or without ideological manipulation.

Thus, the student movement is important because it has been made an important character in an important narrative tradition. The heroic tales of intellectuals and their activities in the past function as models and incentives for the intellectuals who receive them. So a mythology is strengthened by a concrete empirical reality. At the same time, those outside the category of 'students' find themselves urged to adopt, to discuss, to report and to conceive of the activities of present day students within the framework of the already established historical narratives. And so the circle is closed, a blend of fact and fiction, narrative and event.

Traces of history

The fact/ fiction, narrative/ event circle does not emerge out of nowhere, fully formed and autonomous. It too belongs in space and time, and needs to be traced critically, in the context of a specific social history.

Traditionally, intellectuals are defined as those who defend their class interests with cultural capital. Ruling ideology or mythology sees them as vigorous defenders of truth, unmindful of any material rewards that may come their way. Any rewards they might accrue are seen as rightful and unsolicited recompense for their labours. In short, as Pierre Bourdieu says, intellectuals reap material rewards precisely by denying that they have any interests in them.

Raymond Williams was not wrong in pointing to the nations of the Second and Third Worlds as the most fertile ground for the growth of such mythologies. This is not because these societies are too ignorant to recognise manipulation on the part of intellectuals, but ironically, because the tyranny which a variety of communist and fascist regimes have exercised over intellectuals has served precisely to strengthen the fantasy of their exalted and sacred status.

Shot for a scrawl

In countries like the US, intellectuals are given open slather, not because they are loved and honoured, but because liberalism takes away any power their role might have given them. Everyone has open slather. No one much listens, and words lose their political force. But in the Second and Third Worlds, artists and journalists can be shot or imprisoned, shops closed and traffic brought to a halt, for nothing more than an illegal leaflet, some words muttered in the market or scrawled on the walls of a public toilet.

This 'sacred' role of the intellectuals finds an ideal expression in students as a social group. Their youth gives them an air of innocence. Their position outside the world of work, political parties or state bureaucracies makes themappear free of considerations of material gain. Their educational experience and their high-sounding pronouncements make them look intelligent. They seem to be very courageous in pursuit of public interests because they arereported in the press as suffering the consequences of opposition to the violence of the state machinery.

Thus the identity of the student movement is the product of particular configurations that are dominant in the society of which it forms a part. It is not explainable as the expression of a universal tendency on the part of youth to rebel, or of intellectuals to pursue truth. Likewise it is not just the self- indulgence of a minority group. The power accruing to a student movement comes from outside itself, from all the discursive systems which are qualitatively dominant in a particular period.

Political licence

These discursive systems I am referring to are both formed by, and form, material interests. As such, the imaginings that lie behind them are the subject of contestation. In Indonesia, as in a number of other developing countries, students are seen by all interest groups, including the government, as the only social group with political licence to break the official rules, especially in regard to the expression of sensitive opinions - at least to a specific limit whose boundaries are never clear.

In granting this political licence, the government opens up the opportunity for the explosion of heated criticism in the public arena by way of the student's megaphones. But at the same time, it effectively limits opposition to an open platform where it can be controlled and if necessary occasionally crushed. When the licence is revoked, it is usually not the oppression of human rights, but the oppression of the particular rights of young intellectuals that is the cause for alarm

For the students' part, the licence is accepted and exploited, but at a high price. It only operates as long as the movement remains within apolitical limits, and it functions to isolate student activists from the society around them. In some public demonstrations, students actually fence themselves off with raffia twine, and prevent intervention or infiltration from outside interest groups. When this happens the demonstration may become a spectacle for the public whose rights are being abused. A kind of carnival.

In a society like Indonesia, students are clearly not the most intelligent, courageous or oppressed social group. But they are often treated as though they are all three, both to their benefit and their detriment. It gives them a licence to go where no other interest groups can go, but it can also make the licence holders forget who they really are. And that can be a danger.

In New Order Indonesia, the students' political licence carries greater weight than in earlier periods. Tragically, this occurs because of the total disarray of other social forces, such as political parties, labour unions, the press, the judicial system, parliament and mass organisations. As Max Lane has remarked, student activism is an important channel for political aspirations from below, because other channels are blocked. As such, it could be expected that with the restoration of civic institutions, the political role of the student groups would again decline.

Sacred history

Why is it then that in this situation it is the students who havebecome 'the extension of the people's tongue', to use Sukarno's famous phrase, and not other groups? The answer is implied in the above comments on the mythologies surrounding intellectuals in general and students in particular. But they are given added weight by the New Order's own historical narrative, that is, the narrative of its own birth.

In the sacred history of the rise of the New Order, the student movement occupies a prominent position. And for good reason. Arief Budiman, one of the student leaders of that time, has pointed out that without the role of the students, the story of the rise of the New Order would appear to be the story of a military coup against the authority of Guided Democracy. The appearance of the students in the front row at the time was the legitimising factor in a crisis of succession.

Again, the important point is not what actually took place during those years, but the way in which the history of the time has been replicated in a variety of genres and versions with the same few constant emphases.

This brings us to the most bitter of ironies. That is, that the same army leadership that sponsored the most dramatic student movement in the history of the Indonesian Republic was later to oversee the most drastic suppression of an official independent student movement Indonesia has ever witnessed.


The official New Order history of the great moral courage of the student movement lulled many student activists during the first two decades of its rule. It was not until around 1989, with the rise of a new period of student radicalism, that there was a widespread rejection of this story of a heroic past. Beginning at this time, the student movement came to be characterised by a new intellectual and political maturity, the product of the 'discussion groups' of the mid-1980s, and part of the broadly based response to theories of dependency, neo-marxian structuralism, Islamic modernism and feminism of the period.

Its bases began to spread beyond Jakarta into the provinces, with Yogyakarta becoming one of its most important centres. It began to move outside the prestigious state universities and government sanctioned campus institutes, into a range of private institutions. And students began to shift from partnerships with their patrons in the military and civilian bureaucracies to cooperation with farmers, industrial workers, petty traders and women's groups.

These changes have made the student movement of the 1990s both more 'leftist' (in the sense of identifying with the weakest groups) and 'radical' (in the sense of identifying with the most basic causes of a situation). At the same time, the movement is facing new challenges.

One of the 'internal' difficulties that confronts the student movement is the strategic dilemma and/ or divisions within the movement over what is termed reflective intellectualism versus confrontative action, or the cultural, as opposed to political approach. Many activists are tempted to reject the reflective intellectual and cultural approach, not out of any reasons of principle, but because of a range of specific events and their own historical experiences.

Stop thinking!

The most important, though not the only, factor driving this situation is the shifting ground of opposition produced by the government's own discourse. The government demonises political activism, so the students glorify it. The government prohibits students from engaging in 'practical politics', so the students ridicule intellectual discussion with cries like 'Stop thinking! Act!'.

The result is that the students come to agree with the government, that violence and confrontation are the most 'real' ways of entering into conflict and resolving problems. Violence is justified by the government as a way of overcoming threats to 'order and security'. Courage in the face of this violence comes to be seen as the most important credential for the student activist.

This attitude on the part of activists needs to be set against other ways of understanding 'political action', expressed through forms of opposition or resistance outside of Java, outside Indonesia, or in the Indonesia of several decades ago. What the students refer to as 'action' doesn't mean attacks on the presidential palace, the headquarters of the armed force, the cabinet or parliament.

It has nothing to do with acts of terror, hijacking, or the taking of political hostages. Or armed underground resistance movements. What it consists of is demonstrating, circulating petitions, making speeches and engaging in dialogue with government officials in the parliament. Only very rarely has it extended to occupations, hostage taking and the burning of buildings on university campuses.

My point here is not to trivialise the student movement's concept of 'political action'. But it needs to be acknowledged that this type of action cannot be separated from, let alone brought into confrontation with, the 'cultural' radicalism that the movement's leaders often deride. The impact of political action on the part of the students cannot be measured in its ability to threaten the political order of Indonesia. It is given its political impact by the cultural system which operates at the time. In the end, all student political activism is symbolic, as we have seen in extreme form in the self-immolation of student activists in Thailand or Korea.

Cultural politics

The student movement in contemporary Indonesia has yet to maximise the power of cultural radicalism, because it has no taste for cultural politics. This in turn is the result of at least two factors. The first is the conservative understanding of culture and cultural analysis that has been central to the system of state education in Indonesia since colonial times. The second is the antagonistic view of culture in the leftist paradigms of the 1970s and 80s. In short, all our society knows about culture is limited to what aristocratic/feudal and bourgeois/ modern ideology understands of the term.

The strength of the intellectual and cultural approach doesn't have any universal claims to effectiveness in the process of cultural change. But there are two reasons why it needs to be confronted here. The first is that it is inadequately understood, and therefore under-valued and under-exploited. The second, to return to the beginning of this discussion, is that the politics of the student movement are related to the cultural politics of its context.

Its strength lies primarily in the traditional values concerning intellectualism. Students (from those most faithfully reproducing the New Order's technocratic development values to those most radically resisting them) are social actors who are given special opportunities to spend years struggling with information, theory and analysis. The best or worst contribution they can be expected to make to the process of social change clearly doesn't lie in their physical strength, courage of stamina in the face of attacks by riot police, intelligence agents or officials of the justice system who are just 'carrying out their duty' and who are indeed expected to 'stop thinking'.

Ariel Heryanto completed his PhD on the student movement in Indonesia at Monash University in 1993. He is a well-known columnist and presently teaches at the National University of Singapore. An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Die Studentenbewegung in Indonesien', in 'Traum der Freiheit', edited by Hendra Pasuhuk and Edith Koesoemawiria (Koln: Omimee, 1995, pp. 61-67). It was translated by Keith Foulcher.


Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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